The Evolutionary Importance of Self-Directed Play
Peter Gray has conducted and published research in neuroendocrinology, developmental psychology, anthropology, and education. He is author of an internationally acclaimed introductory psychology textbook (Psychology, Worth Publishers, now in its 7th edition, with David Bjorklund as co-author), which views all of psychology from an evolutionary perspective. His recent research focuses on the role of play in human evolution and how children educate themselves, through play and exploration, when they are free to do so. He has expanded on these ideas in his book, "Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life" (Basic Books, 2013). He also authors a regular blog, called "Freedom to Learn," for Psychology Today magazine. His own current play life includes not only his research and writing, but also long-distance bicycling, backwoods skiing, kayaking, and backyard vegetable gardening.
- One of the crucial defining characteristics of play is that it's directed by the children or players themselves. It’s self-directed.
- The decline of the freedom to play has led to psychopathology in children, decreases in certain social skills and abilities and in creativity.
- U.S. parents can draw inspiration from Adventure Playgrounds in Europe where fully trained play workers are present but won’t intervene unless necessary to foster self-directed play
- Communities can use school-areas or organize play areas to let the kids feel free to go out and play. It would only take a few adults or responsible teenagers to be the “play workers” to make sure things are safe.
Peter Gray, psychologist and author of Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life (Basic Books, 2013), discusses how to bring more play into kids’ lives, the catalyst that led him to explore play’s benefits, his theories on play as a primal mode of education, and advice to inspire play!
What led to your play studies?
My interest in play came out of my interest in children’s education. When my son was very young and rebelling in school, I found an alternative school that worked for him. Then I got interested in how the school worked, conducted a systematic study of the school’s graduates, and learned how well they progressed in life. What I learned by observing the school is that children were playing and exploring all the time, yet they were coming out educated.
It led to my interest in hunter-gatherer cultures and how those children learned and acquired their skills, values, and knowledge. Anthropologists I interviewed, who observed such cultures, said they learned through play.
So I developed a theory that play came about through natural selection to serve the purpose of education. Play is the method by which children practice being adults and can be in charge of their lives.
What is your definition of play?
One of the crucial defining characteristics of play is that it's directed by the children or players themselves. It’s self-directed. Adult-directed games like sports, or activities in school where a teacher is telling children what to do, is not play by my definition.
How prevalent is play, by your definition, in modern U.S. culture?
We are living in an age that might be thought of as a “play deprivation experiment.”
Children are deprived of the freedom of play – they are constantly in school or school-like activities. Even when at home they might not be allowed to just go out and play with other kids, and if they do, they don’t see other kids to play with so they come back inside.
I have seen that change in my lifetime – I was a child of the 1950s and my son was a child of the 1970s and early 80s. Over this period there has been a continuous decline in children’s freedom to play, especially to play outdoors.
“One of the crucial defining characteristics of play is that is directed by the children or players themselves. It’s self-directed. Adult-directed games like sports, or activities in school where a teacher is telling children what to do, is not play by my definition.”
What sort of societal impact does this scenario have?
This can lead to an overall downward spiral. From the 1950s to the present, we have witnessed play time decline. Not coincidentally, we have seen gradual and huge increases in all sorts of mental disorders in childhood, like depression, anxiety and other stress related issues in the same time period.
We’ve seen declines in empathy and creativity. All this has been documented over the decades using well validated, clinical questionnaires with normative groups of school-age children and college students. In Free to Learn, I argue for the cause-and-effect relationship between these trends. I believe the decline of the freedom to play has led to this psychopathology in children, decreases in certain social skills and abilities and in creativity.
I argue that this is what you would expect, knowing that we learn through play and what the evolutionary function of play is. If we take play away, then we deprive children of the opportunities to learn the skills that could prevent these problems.
What can U.S. parents and communities do to foster more self-directed play?
We can draw inspiration from some other countries.
- There are Adventure Playgrounds in the U.K. and Europe where fully trained play workers are present but won’t intervene unless necessary – like a lifeguard on a beach – and parents are encouraged to leave. It’s slowly catching on in the United States, too, but parents have a harder time leaving.
Our schools can become play areas.
- The after-school period from 3 – 6 pm really could be a period of free play where schools can use gymnasiums, outdoor playgrounds, art supplies and other resources, and there can be age-mixed play. This would not be curriculum-based activity; it would just use the school as a venue and be a relatively inexpensive means to make use of facilities that are already there. It would only take a few adults or responsible teenagers to be the “play workers” to make sure things are safe. This would solve the babysitting problem that parents have during the time of day between the end of the school day and the end of their own work day; and, most important, it would bring joyful play and natural learning into their children’s lives.
Communities can organize play areas.
- In his book Playborhood, Mike Lanza detailed how a group of mothers in an inner city got together to enable outdoor play in their neighborhood. They approached the city to close a street in proximity to the local school to let the kids feel free to go out and play. Some local grandparents would sit outside and make sure it was safe, but largely be in the background. It does take effort and initiative on the community level, but this proves it can be accomplished.
When parents understand the true benefits of free play, I think they would welcome these ideas and find ways to bring more play into their children’s lives.